Stop the presses and call the government spokespeople back from Martha’s Vineyard.
The corporate media have discovered that the United States is radically outsourcing national security and sensitive intelligence operations. Cable news channels breathlessly report on the "groundbreaking," "exclusive" Washington Post series, Top Secret America, a two-year investigation by Dana Priest and William Arkin. No doubt there is some important stuff in this series. Both Arkin and Priest have done outstanding work for many years on sensitive, life-or-death subjects. And that is one of the main reasons why this series has, thus far, been incredibly disappointing. Its greatest accomplishment is forcing a discussion onto corporate TV years after it would have had an actual impact.
The misplaced hype surrounding the Post series speaks volumes to the ahistorical nature of US media culture. Next week, if the New York Times published a story on how there were no WMDs in Iraq, there would no doubt be cable news shows that would act like it was an earth-moving revelation delivered by Moses on the stone tablet of exclusive, groundbreaking journalism.
The Post does a fine job of exploring the scope of the privatization and providing some new or updated statistics. It also produces a few zingers from senior officials like Defense Secretary Robert Gates. "This is a terrible confession," Gates said in Tuesday’s installment. "I can’t get a number on how many contractors work for the Office of the Secretary of Defense." It was also hilarious to read CIA director Leon Panetta—who just gave Blackwater a brand new $100 million global CIA contract—act like he is anything other than a contractor addict. "For too long, we’ve depended on contractors to do the operational work that ought to be done" by CIA employees, Panetta told the Post. But replacing them "doesn’t happen overnight. When you’ve been dependent on contractors for so long, you have to build that expertise over time." Panetta told the Post he was concerned about contracting with corporations, whose responsibility "is to their shareholders, and that does present an inherent conflict." I wonder if the Blackwater guys working for Panetta can contain their laughter reading those statements. I imagine them taping a post-it note that says "Kick me" on Panetta’s back and then chuckling about it with the Lockheed contractors.
What is perhaps most telling about the Post series is how little detail is provided on the most sensitive operations performed by contractors: assassinations, torture, rendition and operational planning.
In reality, there is little in the Post series that, in one way or another, has not already been documented by independent journalist Tim Shorrock, author of the (actually) groundbreaking book, Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. With the exception of some details and a lot of color, much of what I have read in the Post‘s series thus far I had already read in Shorrock’s book and his previous reporting for Salon, Mother Jones and The Nation. Shorrock was the reporter who first revealed the extent of the radical privatization of intel operations. In 2007, Shorrock obtained and published a document from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence showing that 70 percent of the US intelligence budget was spent on private contractors. Shorrock was way out in front of this story and, frankly, corporate media ignored it. When I was working on my book on Blackwater, which first came out in 2007, Shorrock provided me with some crucial insights into the world of privatized intelligence. Shorrock remains a valued colleague and source and the Post is just wrong to not credit him for the work he has done on this story. Everyone should read Shorrock’s latest story which includes an exclusive photo tour through the private intelligence community.
The Post and its reporters, Shorrock told me, "are doing their best to obfuscate what contractors really do for US intelligence. They’re eight years behind and still haven’t caught up. Basically their stories are throwing big numbers at readers—such as the fact that of 854,000 people with top security clearances, 265,000 are contractors. But that’s work that can be done by interns; there’s virtually nothing in their series about the broader picture—like what it means to have private for-profit companies operating at the highest levels of our national security."
Much of the series reads like a description of the mundane work of analysts and IT people with the types of stats Shorrock mentioned thrown in. Of course, it is meant to feel insider-ish to read the description of the General Dynamics contractor tracking a white pick-up truck in Afghanistan suspected of being "part of a network making roadside bombs" and with a few clicks of the mouse revealing the history of the vehicle, the address and identity of the driver and a list of visitors to his house. But what about the ultra-sensitive work contractors do for the NSA or the highly secretive National Reconnaissance Office? "It’s very significant that, in their database, [the Post] eliminated information about what key contractors do for the agencies such as NSA," says Shorrock. "There’s tons of data about these companies in their database, but not what they actually do." (People wanting more information on contractors doing this work, such as Booz-Allen, SAIC, Northrop Grumman and others should check out the contractor database Shorrock developed with CorpWatch last year.)
Also, what about the contractors who have tortured prisoners, flown rendition flights and participated in lethal "direct actions" ie assassination operations?
According to the July 20 article in the Post‘s series: "Private contractors working for the CIA have recruited spies in Iraq, paid bribes for information in Afghanistan and protected CIA directors visiting world capitals. Contractors have helped snatch a suspected extremist off the streets of Italy, interrogated detainees once held at secret prisons abroad and watched over defectors holed up in the Washington suburbs. At Langley headquarters, they analyze terrorist networks. At the agency’s training facility in Virginia, they are helping mold a new generation of American spies.… Contractors kill enemy fighters. They spy on foreign governments and eavesdrop on terrorist networks. They help craft war plans. They gather information on local factions in war zones."
Wow, an engaged reader might think after reading that, this will be fascinating. Now we are getting somewhere. But instead of revealing new details on these types of operations and naming names and employers and specific incidents, none of that is to be found. The discussion of torture and extrajudicial killings committed by private contractors is relegated to a whitewashing by the Post. "Contractor misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan have hurt U.S. credibility in those countries as well as in the Middle East," Priest and Arkin write. "Abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, some of it done by contractors, helped ignite a call for vengeance against the United States that continues today. Security guards working for Blackwater added fuel to the five-year violent chaos in Iraq and became the symbol of an America run amok." [Emphases added.]
I’m sorry, Blackwater "added fuel" to "chaos?" "America run amok?" These are very strange descriptions of the take-away message from the massacre of seventeen innocent Iraqi civilians, the alleged murder of a bodyguard to the Iraqi vice president and night-hunting Iraqis as "payback" for 9/11. Not to mention the allegations of young prostitutes performing oral sex for a dollar, guns smuggled on private planes in dog food bags, hiding weapons from ATF agents and on and on. But more important, where in the Post series is the examination of the CIA assassination program that relied on Blackwater and other private contractors? Where is the investigation of Erik Prince’s hit teams that operated in Germany and elsewhere? What about the ongoing work of contractors in the drone bombing program? What about Blackwater contractors calling in air-strikes in Afghanistan or operating covertly in Pakistan?
Also, since when is torturing prisoners a "misdeed?" According to the Post, torture at Abu Ghraib "helped to ignite a call for vengeance against the United States." This type of vapid description of the consequences of heinous crimes committed by America and its proxies has become like daily bread in corporate media outlets. The Post‘s focus on the calls for vengeance rather than the incredible uphill quest for justice in the US courts by the victims of this torture is telling. As is the total omission of the other torture facilities employed by the United States—some of which were revealed first by Dana Priest and the Washington Post.
Marcy Wheeler–another unfamous journalist who rarely gets credit from the corporate all-stars when she scoops them—described this aspect of the Post story on her EmptyWheel blog: "Abuse of prisoners happened. But apparently, only at Abu Ghraib, not at Bagram, not at Gitmo, not at firebases where detainees died. And the names of those contractors? Their role in the abuse? The WaPo stops short of telling you, for example, that a CACI interrogator was the one instructing the grunts at Abu Ghraib to abuse detainees. The WaPo also doesn’t tell you the CACI contractors never paid any price for doing so. The WaPo doesn’t mention that DOD believed they had no way of holding contractors accountable for such things (though the case of David Passaro, in which a detainee died, of course proved that contractors could be prosecuted)."
Perhaps the Post plans to publish a story called "Top Top Super Duper Triple-Decker Secret America" where the paper actually delves deep into the outsourcing of assassinations, torture, rendition, interrogation and "find fix and finish" operations. That would truly be ground-breaking. Until then, buy Tim Shorrock’s book and read Marcy Wheeler.